Lifer for attack on lawyer

Print edition : November 29, 1997

The attack on R. Shanmugasundaram (now Public Prosecutor, Tamil Nadu) on May 30, 1995 triggered protests against the Jayalalitha Government. A Chennai court has now convicted the attackers and identified the motive.

SIX of the seven accused in the dramatic "advocate Shanmugasundaram assault" case were sentenced to life imprisonment by the VI Additional Sessions Judge, Chennai, B. Chokkalamani on November 17. The six were also sentenced to pay a fine of Rs.5,000 each failing which to undergo rigorous imprisonment (R.I.) for another six months. The judge acquitted the seventh accused on the ground that the charges against him were not proved.

The case related to the assault on Advocate (now Public Prosecutor, Tamil Nadu) R. Shanmugasundaram at his residence in Kilpauk, Chennai, on May 30, 1995. The murderous attack on the soft-spoken, mild-mannered lawyer triggered a wave of protests by lawyers all over the State against the then Jayalalitha Government. Shanmugasundaram suffered multiple fractures to his legs and hands. He also received deep and long cuts on his hands. The little finger on his left hand was chopped off. Shanmugasundaram was in hospital for several weeks. His two assistants, L. Bhaskaran and Mohan, were also assaulted.

What was the motive behind the crime? Shanmugasundaram had drafted a criminal complaint to prosecute Jayalalitha, then Chief Minister and All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary.

R. Shanmugasundaram.-V. GANESAN

The six accused, who have been sentenced to life imprisonment, are "welding" Kumar, the prime accused, Senthil, Arumugam, Bhaskaran, Navaneetham and Raghu. The seventh accused, who has been acquitted, is Dhandapani.

The Additional Sessions Judge said, "It is the conclusion of the court that circumstantial, oral and documentary evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt the involvement" of the first six accused in the brutal assault on Shanmugasundaram. He added that the six accused got together and hatched a conspiracy to attack the advocate. The judgment said that the assailants had attempted to murder Shanmugasundaram with a view to preventing him from doing his professional work. The Judge said, "No individual can snatch away the liberty of another individual."

According to the prosecution, Shanmugasundaram had drafted a complaint under Section 169 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that Jaya Publications, in which Jayalalitha was one of the partners, purchased land belonging to the State-owned Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation (TANSI). The complaint was to be filed in a court on May 31, 1995, by the joint secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's (DMK) legal wing, R.S. Bharathi. The attack took place on the night of May 30, a day before the complaint was to be filed.

Bharathi and Shanmugasundaram were holding discussions for a month, in person and over telephone, on the filing of the complaint. Shanmugasundaram had told Bharathi that he had been receiving anonymous phone calls enquiring about the case. On the night of May 30, Bharathi met Shanmugasundaram at the latter's home and they decided to file the complaint the next day. Ten minutes after Bharathi left, Shanmugasundaram was attacked.

Section 169 of the IPC relates to a "public servant unlawfully buying or bidding for property." Public servants are barred from buying Government-owned property. Section 169 prohibits public servants from buying or bidding for "certain property", "either in his own name or in the name of another, or jointly, or in shares with another." (Jayalalitha was Chief Minister at that time and therefore a public servant.) The section also says that any public servant who purchases or bids so can be jailed for two years or fined, or both, and "the property, if purchased, shall be confiscated." (Frontline, June 30 and July 14, 1995).

Lawyers in Chennai, incensed by the assault on Shanmugasundaram, boycotted courts, blocked traffic, staged a demonstration on the arterial Anna Salai, formed a human chain and went on a protest march to the Secretariat. The grim struggle in the summer heat lasted three weeks. The Madras High Court Advocates' Association (MHAA), led by advocates K.T. Palpandian, R. Gandhi, Ramani Natarajan and others, was at the vanguard of the struggle. The MHAA vowed to "unmask the people behind the crime." It filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court, demanding a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the crime because the attack would "not receive proper attention in the hands of the State police." (On June 11, a Sunday, three persons mysteriously surrendered before a holiday magistrate but their residential addresses were found to be bogus by journalists). Justice S. Jagadeesan of the High Court directed the State Government on June 20 to hand over the case to the CBI.

'Welding' Kumar (left), the prime accused, coming out of the court after he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.-V. GANESAN

The CBI, which investigated the crime, said that Senthil, Arumugam, Bhaskar, Navaneetham and Raghu went to Shanmugasundaram's house and attacked him because he was preparing a case against Jayalalitha. The CBI cited 18 witnesses, submitted 73 documents and produced six material objects.

While attacking the advocate the assailants shouted, "How dare you file a case against 'Amma'?", according to the prosecution. Referring to this in his judgment, the Judge said that it was known to all that the word "Amma" meant Jayalalitha at the time the offence was committed. He added: "The court concludes that the accused had committed the crime to prevent the petition from being filed against her. There is no room for any other motive." The circumstances in which Shanmugasundaram, Bhaskaran and Mohan were assaulted indicated that the offence must have been committed at the "instigation of someone", he said.

The Judge said,"The bestial attack, aimed at an advocate to prevent him from filing a complaint in the court, should be unequivocally condemned. If this is allowed to continue, people cannot practise their professions with freedom. It will amount to infringement of fundamental rights." Neither the law nor the court could be silent spectators to the culture of preventing people from doing their work, the Judge said. "The court is of the opinion that those who prevent people (from doing their work) should be punished severely."

The Judge rejected the contention of the accused that the CBI had not conducted the investigation properly. He said, "The allegations against the accused have been proved beyond doubt." He found them guilty under the Indian Penal Code's (IPC) Sections 120-B (criminal conspiracy), 452 (house trespass after preparation for hurt, assault, etc..) read with 149 (which says that every member of the unlawful assembly is guilty of the offence committed in prosecution of a common object), 307 (attempt to murder) read with 149, 324 (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means) read with 149, and 506 (2). Although the Judge convicted them and sentenced them to varying terms of imprisonment under the relevant sections, he said that the sentences would run concurrently. He praised the "excellent work" done by CBI Special Public Prosecutor K. Asokan.

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